There are twelve recreational divers on the boat with me heading out from the Pacific coast. In our tight fitting wetsuits we look like a boat full of sea lions with human heads chatting away about the day’s prospects ahead – fish, fish and yet more fish.
As beach resorts go, Playa del Coco is nice enough, but the true splendour of
the area lies not on the sands or in the surrounding hills, but beyond the view
of the average beach side vacationer. To really see it, you need to put on a scuba tank and a pair of fins to witness an underwater world as rich, if not richer in beauty and biodiversity as any of Costa Rica’s forests.
Although we are all very excited at the prospect of sharing this morning’s dive
with the regions sub aquatic wildlife, there is one particular creature that we
are all hoping to meet.
A Shark. In fact, a very very big shark- the biggest shark in the world – A whale shark.
I must admit to being apprehensive, after all, I am about to get into the water
with an animal that can grow to lengths of fifteen meters or more, but apart from it’s sheer enormity, it is the word Shark that makes me uneasy. Stephen Spielberg’s famous horror film Jaws sent me scampering for the back of the sofa when I was a kid. Sensationalist fiction it may have been, but it has left me with a healthy fear of these oceanic beasts.
Everyone becomes animated when we see our first sign that a whale shark is nearby-
a huge flock of noisome seabirds and pelicans wheeling above a patch of sea that
seems to be boiling with activity. They plunge like missiles into the water, surfacing
with bills full of juicy little fish.
We are given instructions to check our diving gear is in place and working correctly,
and reminded of the rules- do not scare the shark and do not try and ride it please.
I wonder if our guide is crazy – how can I, a hundred and forty pound human scare
an animal that may weigh fifteen thousand kilos? But apparently, they are very
Once in the water we can see what is causing the commotion at the surface. Hundreds
of big fish chase little fish that glitter and sparkle in the water with their
silvery bodies. These smaller ones are after the dark clouds of tiny shrimp, which
are being herded towards the surface by two huge whale sharks. Their massive mouths,
almost five feet wide gape open, big enough to park a small car inside.
Wherever whale sharks go, an entourage of other animals accompany them, and it
is not uncommon to find giant bat like Manta rays swimming along side and clusters
of remora fish attached like limpets to the shark’s belly. But these days it is
not only fish and birds following, but also humans as well.
Whale sharks are filter feeders, sucking huge quantities of water and plankton
into their cavernous mouths. The water is then pumped out through massive gill
slits via a fine mesh like structure that captures the tiny prey.Despite their
enormity they are unable to swallow anything very big, which makes me feel better
about being so close- I would hate to be accidentally sucked up.
We all keep our distance as they feed, not out of fear, but out of respect for
these colossal animals as they go about their business, siphoning a nutritional
soup of shrimp and plankton. This is a true magic moment and I would like to scream
with happiness- fortunately not possible with a regulator in my mouth, as this
would likely cause me to A) frighten the sharks away and B) result in my drowning.
Like all sharks, they do have teeth, thousand upon thousands of them set out
in well over a hundred rows, but unlike predatory sharks, these teeth are blunt
and harmless and I am in no danger as they glide slowly below me.
All too soon though the air in our tanks runs low and we must depart. Back on
board, the excited chatter is almost as loud as the squabbling birds circling
above. It has been a wonderful encounter that has left everybody a little stunned-
I don’t think the sharks even noticed us while calmly drifting around with their
mouths open. They have tiny little eyes that seem lost on such a mammoth head,
but 20/20 vision is not really necessary when you have no predators to watch out
for and your prey cannot swim away. It’s an easy way of life.
Unfortunately not all such human encounters are this benign.
Whale Sharks are found along many coastlines in the tropics and temperate zones from Australia to India and although they are protected here in Costa Rica, this is not the case in many other countries.
Their future has become uncertain due to a growing global market for whale shark
products. Their huge fins fetch $500 per kilo and are made into soup while the
one tonne liver is melted down and used to waterproof small fishing boat hulls.
Due to technological advancements in ship radar and the use of spotter planes
by fishing industries, whale sharks are finding fewer places to hide, and as a
result, populations have declined.
A proposal to protect these animals under the convention on international trade
in endangered species (CITES) was rejected due to insufficient evidence because
until recently, very little research had been undertaken. This decision sparked
a rush to discover as much as possible about these giants before they perhaps
disappear forever. Important ongoing studies were launched including satellite
tracking to discover where it is that these giants of the Ocean travel too.
Transmitters attached to sharks showed they journeyed thousands upon thousands
of miles, passing through the territorial waters of many different nations.
“Some regions have decrees, which make it illegal to hunt them” I am told by
a whale shark researcher on board “but sometimes this can seem pointless, since
they migrate into unprotected areas. The sharks are killed anyway, and the local
fishermen who lost their lively hood can become angry. We hope that the research
being conducted today all over the world will provide evidence enough to support
global restrictions on the killing of whale sharks”
“We know relatively little about this species” he tells me “For instance, it
is newly discovered that their eggs hatch while inside the mothers body and the
babies are born fully developed.”
Scientists also suspect that a whale shark can live for more than 100 years and
perhaps take 30 years to reach maturity.
“This slow rate of reproduction can be fatal for the species. Continuous hunting
pressure will prevent population recovery.”
“But it’s not all bad news” He continues “Eco-tourism flourishes where whale
sharks are found such as here in Costa Rica. Local fishermen, expert trackers
from childhood, throw away their harpoons to become well paid guides instead”
Things can go wrong though if guidelines are ignored. Disturbance caused by the
presence of too many divers can drive the sharks from their feeding grounds. Worse
still, propellers can kill, and collisions occur when boats crowd in too close.
Most dive tour operators that have an emphasis on whale shark encounters will
usually have special rules for their divers that minimise the disturbance to the
animals- after all; if the sharks are driven away it is bad for business.
Sometimes a shark will come within touching distance of a group of divers, a
truly awesome experience, but it is best to resist the temptation to grab at it
or even ride along on the dorsal fin as is often seen in photographs. Just being
close to one should be a satisfying enough experience.
Whale sharks, along with many other plants and animals face extinction unless
we learn more about them. Living things frequently vanish forever before we have
a chance to realize their potential benefits to mankind. For instance, research
has indicated that whale shark livers are resilient to tumours. Science may someday
apply our developing knowledge in the fight against cancer, but if the whale shark
vanishes, then we never shall know.
In the meantime, I am happy that the opportunity exists for such encounters as
the one I had with the two giant sharks off playa del Coco, and I hope, that future
generations will be able to feel the need to scream with happiness at the sight
of the world’s biggest fish.
Dale Morris and his wife Sasha left Great Britain 13 years ago. He has written
numerous articles about wild animals in Costa Rica since 1997.
Dale works as a freelance nature writer and photographer and his work has been
published in BBC Wildlife, Geographical and Global Adventure and regularly contributes
to ‘Costa Rica Outdoor’ Magazine and Asahi weekly in Japan.
Together, Dale and his wife have worked in Australia, Thailand, Indonesia, Nigeria,
Kenya, Tanzania, Costa Rica and Scotland and have been attacked by mosquitoes,
killer ants, monkeys, chimpanzees, jaguars, fish with sharp teeth, scorpions,
bees, bears, giraffe, elephants and drunken Scotsmen during that time.
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